What we mean by "sustainably-raised meat"

Little piggies

In case you have read our Portland Restaurant Guide and are wondering what we’re talking about when we say “sustainably-raised meat,” here are some thoughts on the matter.

For additional reading on the subject, here’s an informative article by Nicolette Hahn Niman (whose husband Bill was the founder of Niman Ranch) about how to avoid factory-farmed food.

We use the terms “factory-farmed” and “CAFO” interchangeably. They both mean the same thing: that the animal in question was raised in extreme confinement and fed questionable feed; that, where possible and legal, they were fed corn and growth hormones to speed their production; and that they were routinely given antibiotics to fend off the infections and disease that go hand in hand with this kind of nightmarish existence. Often these animals have also been mutilated in some way — debeaking for chickens, the cutting off of the tail for pigs, and so on — all for the convenience of keeping the animals in tiny boxes.

We don’t eat factory-farmed food, and have not for many years. Anything that is not factory-farmed is, for the purposes of this list, “sustainably-raised.” A more accurate description would simply be “non-factory-farmed meat,” but we’ve found that avoiding the F-word when talking to restaurant folks is helpful, especially in front of other customers. Also, we want to come up with a positive name for this kind of food, since the farmers providing it are doing some positive work — they’re not just “un-factory-farming,” they’re farming in the way that people farmed for about 10,000 years, up until the middle of the 20th century.

The baseline judgement is meat that is labelled free of added hormones, and free of antibiotics. This doesn’t directly tell you anything about the way the animal was raised, but you can be sure that if they were not given antibiotics, they were not kept in extreme confinement.

“Free-range,” similarly, has an official meaning that may disappoint you if you envision grassy fields and clear skies — all it means is that the animal was not kept in confinement. These animals, usually chickens or pigs, are at minimum kept in large open barns or sheds, are not mutilated, and are allowed to engage in “normal behaviors” like rooting, pecking around, scratching, and generally being pigs and chickens. If you’ve ever met a chicken or a pig, you know that this wouldn’t be such a bad way to go. We call it “sustainable” for the purposes of this chart.

“Pastured” means that the animal spent at least some, usually most, of its life outdoors and on pasture of grass and mixed herbs. All animals can live on pasture. Ruminants such as sheep and cattle need grass to live a healthy life, and one of the amazing things about ruminants is that they can convert the solar energy in grass to nutritious milk and meat for human consumption. Chickens, meanwhile, can eat all sorts of things, but eggs from pastured hens are remarkably more flavorful and rich, and, apparently, contain more of the desirable Omega-3 fatty acids. Pigs don’t need grass for their diet like ruminants do, but pigs that are raised on pasture provide more value to the whole farm as tillers, weeders, and fertilizers. Pastured pigs also get more exercise and live less stressful lives, which, storybook as it is made to sound nowadays, is a big factor in the quality of the meat and in the total experience of animal husbandry, not just for the pig but for the farmers and you and me, the eaters.

“Grass-fed”
is the term usually applied to beef, and it means the same thing as “pastured,” more or less. Technically, nearly all cattle are grass-fed at some point in their lives, but the term “grass-fed” seems now to be used as the equivalent of “grass-finished,” which means that the cow was never fed any corn at all, and was fed mostly grass, plus hay or alfalfa or sometimes wheat, in the winter when the pastures were not growing fast enough to handle cattle. Cattle raised on grass also produce milk and meat with Omega-3 fatty acids.

“Organic” is a term rarely used to describe meat, but some farms manage to pull it off — the problem is that it is tricky to have enough organic pasture to provide for a lot of animals, so many “organic” meats come from animals that don’t spend a lot of time on pasture. And sometimes it just means they’re kept in factory-farm-like conditions and fed imported organic soy feed. Not so great. For the purposes of this discussion, “organic” is a less useful term than usual.

Pastured and/or grass-finished is our ideal. Not many restaurants can afford to buy and sell pastured beef or pork, although in the process of making this list, we found several restaurants that are indeed doing so, and they’re not all expensive high-end restaurants, either — the Portland kitchens of Grand Central Bakery, a regional chain, sources grass-fed, grass-finished beef for their reasonably-priced sandwiches, to give one example. This was a pleasant surprise.

We make great efforts to buy our meat for our home cooking from farms that raise animals on pasture. It’s expensive, but cheaper than eating in restaurants! So when we eat out, we settle for any kind of sustainably- or naturally-raised meat. If the server, chef, or owner is not sure, or can’t tell us, we order vegetarian.

“Sustainable seafood” means the animal was harvested from a sustainable fishery as defined by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program.

All these labels don’t seem very specific, do they? Again, the only way to find out what you are eating is to ask. I recently found a nifty interactive “label decoder” on the National Geographic site, which is informative, though it mostly serves as a spooling-out of just how complicated and fraught with un-regulation this whole situation is. Sad, isn’t it, that simply raising animals well and feeding them food they ought to eat is so tangled up in certification and labels, when everyone knows it ought to be done.

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